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The Talented Ms Highsmith and Tom Ripley, Part Three

This is the third and final article in my series on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series. I review the fifth and last of her novels about the homicidal psychopath (it seems cruel to label such a fascinating charmer in this manner), and I write some concluding thoughts on the Ripley oeuvre. In a separate article, “Patricia Highsmith and Tom Ripley in the Movies” I have dealt with cinematic treatments and a screenplay based upon “The Talented Mr. Ripley by Anthony Minghella.

“Ripley Under Water”

In “Ripley Under Water” Patricia Highsmith’s fifth and final Tom Ripley novel, a dangerous, nasty, deranged couple, David and Janice Pritchard, have shown up in Tom’s placid French village. They are up to no good, digging into Tom’s past, the disappearance of Murchison whom Tom had murdered in the wine cellar of his Belle Ombre home. They have been looking into the forgeries of the Derwatt paintings and Ripley’s association with the missing Dickie Greenleaf, the man who inadvertently provided Tom with his wealth and life of leisure. It isn’t easy being Tom Ripley, a man with at least eight or nine homicides in his past.

Highsmith frequently jumps directly into her narrative and the hero’s dilemma-no preambles or wasted time in her forceful, plot and character-driven style. As usual wife Heloise is away (in Morocco) or indifferent to what is transpiring. She knows her husband is a dicey piece of work, but he provides exactly what she needs, window dressing for her frivolous life style. Tom doesn’t work for a living, but he certainly works hard to avoid detection.

Pritchard, full of insinuations and threats, follows Tom and his wife to Morocco where Tom gives him a good thrashing. Throughout the book, readers, knowing Tom as a frequent murderer, realize that the Pritchards are skating on very thin ice by pursuing him. Often his solution to such problems has been homicidal rather than societal. He’s not the kind of man one fools with. The creepy odd couple, like vultures, quarrel and fight, a couple straight out of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

Pritchard, a persistent obsessed avenger, gets a boat and a helper and starts methodically dragging in the nearby rivers and canals for Murchison’s missing body. Each day he goes out grappling for long hours while Tom is grappling with what to do with this meddler. When a headless corpse turns up, the plot thickens.

This is a perfectly plotted book. Highsmith keeps you wondering how Tom is going to finally deal with the Pritchards, because you know he’ll do whatever he has to do, including murder, to survive.

Ripley – In Summary

As we look back on the five-novel canon of the Highsmith Ripley novels, we see in Tom Ripley a man who fascinates us, but not a man we can admire or envy because of his dodgy sense of morality and his criminality. He lives a life of leisure, loves to work in his garden, is an amateur painter, loves his beautiful home, Belle Ombre, in the French countryside.

He adores his beautiful, independently wealthy wife Heloise who is completely hedonistic and so into herself that she turns a blind eye to her husband’s wrongdoing. Her role is like Tony Soprano’s wife except Tony’s wife is gutsy, more probing, and more involved while Heloise is passive.

Tom is a murderer, an impostor, a crook, but still for the reader a mesmerizing, engaging character creation. He loves fine art, particularly the work of Derwatt, because his income was partly derived from the sale of forgeries of Derwatt’s work. He loves expensive clothes and fine wines and foods. Unfortunately he is never able to get rid of the bloodstains of a victim named Murchison whom he had slain in the Belle Ombre wine cellar.

Tom is cultured, cultivated, self educated, a man who appreciates the finer things in life, but is he really civilized? At least eight people died by his hand (it’s hard to keep up with his body count), and he drove at least one more to suicide, Bernard Tufts, the forger. Perhaps he had indirectly driven a second person, the teenager Frank Pierson, to suicide by not counseling him more. He has a killer’s instinct and a liking for killing that belies his cultivated way of life. Perhaps it’s analogous to Hitler’s love of Wagner or Wagner’s admiration for Hitler?

Tom lacks a conscience, any sense of morality. At times he seems able to block out dangerous situations his friends or even his wife find themselves in. In Book Five he doesn’t even think about the tragedy of his bosom buddy Frank in Book Four.

Survival instincts are very strong in Tom. His own level of self-preservation and selfishness often take the forefront. He exhibits a great deal of callousness. He is a risk-taker who often skates very close to detection and discovery, but it is almost always Tom against the world, wily, brutal and violent at times, Tom, above all others. The last man standing if necessary-but he never killed a woman.

Highsmith loved the amorality of her creation, her creature, and she endowed him with a sense of empowerment and an ability to escape capture and go free. She wanted him to be as free as a bird. I think he was her answer to a society she found stultifying, hypocritical and immoral. Perhaps Tom was her defiant answer to what she saw as the immorality and callousness of the world.

Perhaps he broke rules that Highsmith herself scarcely believed in. Through him she could live her own cultured life and thumb her nose at a society that she was not keen to be a member of. She grew very fond of her cultured creation, because he was a rebel, a daring rule-breaker, a homicidal monster in a world that may have been perhaps monstrous to her eyes.

But writing about bad guys is fun, and it was fun for her to have a creation who did what he wanted, what he shouldn’t have done, and yet went unpunished because he belonged to her fictional world, and she could make up her own rules for that world.

Highsmith died in 1995, but even now Tom may still be alive, unpunished, living by his own rules, cultivating his garden and occasionally knocking off a person or two who gets in his way.